Out-of-control emotions can harm your health in unexpected ways. Without even realizing it, we can fall into patterns of behavior that sabotage our health and lead to long-term consequences.
We all have areas, or domains, in our life that could use improvement. But knowing we need to improve and actually improving requires that we learn to set goals. The first domain we explored this year had to do with relational goals. This month we’ll address emotional goals. Don’t worry, this series won’t exhort you to act all touchy-feely and woo-woo. You may have grown up in a family of origin where no one talked about emotions or labeled some emotions as negative or positive. This month’s series will help you learn how to set emotional growth goals to help you improve both your mental health your relationships.
Out-of-Control Emotions and Me
“Do you want the macaroni and cheese, or the tomato soup?” I asked Pedro.
He grimaced. “Soup.”
“Do you want peas or green beans?”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Green beans easier to eat.”
We sat in the hospital room where the bright September sunlight washed out the constant stream of numbers on the multiple monitors attached to tubes sprouting out of his body. For the first time in weeks he cared about what he ate.
“I’ll order a whole-wheat roll and butter for you, too,” I decided.
“Yeah, do peaches sound good?”
He nodded, and his eyes drifted closed.
“You should definitely order the Häagen-Dazs bar,” I told him.
“Too much food!” he protested.
“I can help you eat it,” I offered. “We’ll save money because I won’t have to go out to eat.”
He nodded again, and fell into a slumber as I finished the order form and clipped it to the whiteboard for the orderly to pick up.
When the meal came, he worked on it for 45 minutes before pushing the tray away. Because the cancer had attached itself to his facial muscles, chewing and swallowing took forever.
“You finish it.” He offered as he drifted off to sleep again and I tackled the food. The Häagen-Dazs bar had partially melted, but every chocolaty bite acted as a tonic to my out-of-control life.
What’s Your Drug of Choice?
Food became my drug of choice for drowning my out-of-control emotions. If I worried about my next meal I wouldn’t have to worry about hospital bills. Choosing and anticipating the day’s flavor of ice-cream bar prevented me from ruminating on the glacial progress of Pedro’s treatment. Trotting down the street to the nearest Starbucks kept me from thinking about how much I missed our girls.
Stuffing my emotions equaled stuffing my face.
I couldn’t let my voice crack when I talked with the girls each day. They needed to see my strength. I couldn’t burst into tears when I walked into Pedro’s hospital room. He needed to hear my encouragement. I couldn’t let the medical professionals see slumped shoulders and dragging feet as I walked around the cancer ward. They needed to know we had hope and wouldn’t let them give up.
Food soothed the beast of pent-up emotions. And so I ate. I also gained. Walking up the 11 flights of stairs to the cancer ward got harder and harder, so I started using the elevator. On my flying visits back to Montana, I had no energy to enjoy my regular after-dinner walks.
In retrospect, I should have asked for help. They have support groups and counselors for people in crisis. But I thought I had everything under control. After all, people told me so all the time.
“You are so strong,” they would tell me. “I would be a basket case if my husband was going through this.”
Pedro miraculously recovered from cancer after a stem-cell transplant. Within a year, he had gained back his pre-cancer weight and started his usual outdoor activities. It took me almost a decade to (mostly) recover my physical health.
If Only I’d Known About Cortisol
Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, has many roles in our bodies. It mainly functions to give us increased energy levels by raising our blood-sugar and working in tandem with adrenaline (which increases our heart rate). Together, the two hormones prepare your body for flight or fright by shutting down non-essential functions and oversupplying your muscles and brain. Your muscles and brains will help you get out of the situation.
But too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing.
Cortisol plays both the good cop and the bad cop in your body. Some studies suggest that cortisol protects us from the emotional load of a stressful situation. Kind of like a good cop taking the pressure off the stress of the bad cop yelling at the suspect. Maybe that explains my ability to outwardly ‘handle’ 10 months of acute stress.
But cortisol can also build up in our bodies with the intensity of a bad cop until we explode (or implode). According to Mayo Clinic,
“The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.”Mayo Clinic
The side-effects of constant stress look like a diet of chips and soda on a couch potato:
- Weight gain
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Heart disease
- Digestive problems
- Reproductive system problems
- Musculoskeletal disorders
During Pedro’s illness, and for years afterward, I experienced all of these symptoms except heart disease. Thankfully, not all at the same time.
Stress can kill you—or at least make you feel rotten 90% of the time. Those negative effects can linger for years after a period of intense stress—especially if you don’t consciously work to counteract them.
Hacks for Counteracting the Negative Effects of Stress (and Out-of-Control Emotions)
1. Exercise Every. Single. Day.
Even if you don’t feel like it and even if you can scarcely walk. Exercise. Sit in a chair and air box. March in place. Buy a fitness tracker and try to increase the number of steps you take each day.
Not exercising will prevent those feel-good endorphins from releasing. So just do it. Your health depends on you moving.
2. Set Yourself Up for a Good Night’s Sleep
Set a bedtime (little kids aren’t the only ones who need a bedtime). Stick to it, as much as possible, even on weekends. Set a wake time, too. You can train your body what to expect, and it will respond.
Take an inventory of your current going-to-sleep routines and eliminate anything that the experts say will prevent you from having restful sleep: television, computers, phones, alcohol, caffeine, heavy exercise, and chaos in general.
3. Get in Touch with Your Emotions
Finish your day with writing in a journal or making lists of good things that happened that day. Research shows that we can enhance our mood by remembering positive events.
Form a habit of naming your emotions and expressing them.
4. Build a Support Network
Barbara Kingsolver, in her novel Animal Dreams, introduces a group of local women known as the ‘Stitch and Bitch Club.’ Don’t join one of those—they just provide more stress.
You want a support network of people who ask you about the good things happening in your life. Another author, Robin Jones Gunn, in her novel Being Known, introduces a group of friends who build each other up so that when stressful times arise, each of them knows someone she can talk to about the stresses. You want to form or join a group like this.
Intentionally gather a group of friends and invest time in each other. The support network will prove invaluable when you need it.
If you’re a person of faith, your daily relationship with God will form the basis of your support network. If you don’t have a nurturing group of friends, make it a matter of prayer.
5. Seek Professional Help
Our emotions don’t operate in isolation; neither does our physical body. If you experience unexplainable health problems, consider checking in with a psychologist or licensed counselor (as well as your regular physician).
You may need medication to help regulate your emotions so that you can work through your stressors with a counselor and learn coping skills. Physical health and mental health work hand-in-hand to help you live a balanced lifestyle.Check out these five hacks for handling out-of-control emotions. #selfcare #selfcarehacks #emotionalhealth Click To Tweet
You Can Get off the Roller Coaster
You don’t need to let your out-of-control emotions rule or ruin your life. Five simple steps will help you get off the roller coaster. Exercise every day, make sleep a priority, get in touch with your emotions, form a support network, and get professional help if you need it.
Next week I’ll talk about handling out-of-control emotions from other people.